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Against all odds, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and her fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) have returned home after surviving The Hunger Games. Winning means they must turn around, leaving their loved ones behind and embark on a ‘Victory Tour’ through the districts. Along the way, Katniss senses a rebellion simmering – one that she and Peeta may have sparked. At the end of the Victory Tour, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) announces a deadly 75th Hunger Games that could change Panem forever. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The
As a person that lives his life largely outside the influence of Young Adult novels, I am utterly fascinated that Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy seems to have sparked an entire subset of dystopian YA literature. As an adult without children it’s easy to assume that kids want more Hero’s Journey monomyths, like Harry Potter in their lives, but, looking back on my own pre-teen/teen years, I realize that dreary, post-apocalyptic universes appealed to me in the form of comic books and movies (in particular, James Cameron tapped this need when he stuck a child protagonist in Terminator 2). What better place for a 14-year-old to revel in his/her hormonal angst than a world that has already ended?

The first film adaptation of Collins’ books, titled, simply, The Hunger Games, was something of an experiment on the part of Lionsgate – a company that was trying to open their marketing opportunities to something outside of horror franchises (the gamble paid off and they’re now starting another dystopian YA franchise with Divergent). Its relatively modest budget meant that special effects spectacle was secondary to the popularity of the source material and the strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s central performance. It was directed and co-written by Gary Ross, a man known for his Oscar-friendly productions ( Pleasantville and Seabiscuit). Ross was the right guy to develop a visual language for the series. He shot the film using handheld cameras and developed a strong visual contrast between the grounded reality of District 12 life and the Technicolor debauchery of the Capital during the first two acts. However, the cinéma vérité style didn’t work so well during the Hunger Games themselves. Here, his shaky cameras rattled the violent action scenes into indiscernible blurs. It was also clear that Ross and his co-writers weren’t sure how to split the story between character development, battle training, and the games themselves, which made for an unbalanced and numbing narrative rhythm.

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The
The filmmakers behind the second film, Catching Fire, benefit from Ross’ preparations, even the more awkward ones. The world and its rules are established, allowing new director, Francis Lawrence, to build upon the foundation. Lawrence has very little in common with Ross as a director, except for, perhaps, his pre- Catching Fire movie, Water For Elephants. Otherwise, Lawrence is best known for his work with big, supernatural action spectacles, like Constantine and I Am Legend. He is a technically adept director with a good eye for striking compositions. I don’t think he could’ve created the series’ visual language without Ross’ initial input, but he’s a good choice to continue the franchise. Working with almost double the original film’s budget (a lot of which probably went to actors’ paychecks), Lawrence recreates the familiar environments with a stronger sense of spectacle and reality, thanks to improved, more realistic digital effects. His action sequences are also much better choreographed than Ross’ were.

Ross’ original film also has the advantage of a self-contained story. The Hunger Games ends with the promise of further adventures, but doesn’t require additional plotting to complete its story. Perhaps this is because Collins wasn’t sure if she’d have a chance to write any further adventures for Katniss and her friends. Catching Fire requires the audience to have seen the first movie (though, I do appreciate the relative lack of recap, given the 146 minute runtime), then ends on a cliffhanger, which wouldn’t be so bad, except that Lawrence fumbles the rhythm, and offering no comedown from the story’s proper climax. That said, I do feel appropriately primed for the next chapter in the series (even if they’re greedily risking overexposure by spreading Collins’ final book over two movies).

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The
When the franchise traded out their director, they also traded out screenwriters. Ross, Collins, and State of Play and Captain Phillips writer Billy Ray were replaced with Simon Beaufoy, Academy Award winner for Slumdog Millionaire, and Michael deBruyn, the nom de plume of Michael Arndt, Academy Award nominated writer of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 (he also wrote Star Wars VII, but it sounds like his script is not going to be used). Once again, with the somewhat awkward process of lining up the pins already finished, the new writing staff has a much easier time knocking them down. Catching Fire has a healthier narrative structure, more even pacing, and much stronger character moments. The only real issue, at least on a plot level, is that the Hunger Games section of the film requires everyone keeping their elaborate plan a secret from Katniss, despite her participation being a prerequisite to success. No one involved produces a compelling reason to keep the heroine in the dark. The suspension of disbelief is not too much to overcome, but the narrative device is still a gimmicky way to manufacture additional drama and it cheapens a genuinely clever way of surmounting audience expectations for a Hollywood sequel.

The Hunger Games so plainly states its political allegories (sending children off to war, the 99% verses the 1%, the ‘meat parade’ of celebrity worship, the salaciousness of reality television, et cetera) that it almost didn’t count as subtext. This was acceptable, considering the age group the books were original aimed at. It’s probably better that kids learn these lessons from a book of their choosing, rather than to be force-fed Orwell’s 1984 for the millionth time (though, I’d hope they’d be open to reading that one on their own later). With the clunky, pulp sci-fi politics out of the way (there’s a lot of Death Race 2000 in Ross’ movie version), Catching Fire is free to develop the themes into something more complex and mature. The politics of Panem come into greater focus, especially the main villain, President Snow, who is fleshed out from a shadow of a threat to a full-fledged monster. I’m genuinely impressed that the filmmakers managed to squeeze this much real-world bleakness into a tentpole blockbuster.

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The
The entire returning cast seems more comfortable in their roles. It’s easy to be cynical about Jennifer Lawrence’s (no relation to the director, by the way) meteoric rise, but the truth is that, from Winter’s Bone to American Hustle (maybe not House at the End of the Street…), she has earned every ounce of the audience’s goodwill. Katniss is a remarkably well-rounded heroine and I hope that the film’s enormous box office success (it was the number one money maker stateside in 2013) inspires studios to flood the market with more strong females for girls to look up to. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are trapped in the kind of thankless supporting roles that are usually reserved for female love interests. Hemsworth isn’t on screen enough to really matter, but Hutcherson does a fine job expanding upon the series’ perpetual damsel in distress. The newer cast members, especially Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Amanda Plummer, Lynn Cohen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman (R.I.P.), are given broader characters, which they whittle down into proper human beings as Katniss comes to understand them.

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The

Video


Ross shot his film on 35mm, a tradition that is carried on in Catching Fire, at least until we reach the Hunger Games, when Lawrence changes over to IMAX 65mm. This Blu-ray is presented in 1080p HD and usually framed at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Details are dynamic and crisp without any notable edge enhancement or other sharpening artefacts. The use of shallow focus keeps many of the backgrounds blurry, but the fine film grain remains sharp. Lawrence and David Slade’s preferred cinematographer Jo Willems reuse a lot of the original film’s colour palette, including the cool grays, blues and yellows of the Districts and the neon purples, blues, and oranges for the Capital. The new film is a bit darker and more ‘Technicolor’ in its element separation and includes richer, deeper blacks – some of which crush-out the finer details in the darkest scenes. I noted no major macro-blocking or other compression issues on even the richest hues, nor did any of the more subtle gradations appear smooth. When the film enters its final act and the characters enter the games arena the aspect ratio changes to a more IMAX-friendly 1.78:1 (some of the effects-heavy scenes appear to have been shot in digital HD, according to the behind-the-scenes doc). As soon as the characters enter the jungle (the moment the larger format is officially used, despite the aspect ratio change slightly early) the overall clarity increases quite a bit, especially in wide-angle shots (Lawrence and Willems use much deeper focus when dealing with 65mm) and the grain levels plummet. Perhaps more significant, the colours are all much more vibrant, especially the lush forest greens and intense bloody reds that occasionally pop out of the landscape.

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The

Audio


The first Hunger Games overcame many of its budgetary constraints with a full-bodied, big, and boisterous soundtrack. Catching Fire’s DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 matches and even exceeds that mix, thanks in no small part to bigger, louder action set-pieces and broader, more detailed futuristic environments. The sound designers keep the more mundane environments dry, moving the basic aural elements (especially dialogue) freely throughout the channels, depending on placement. The stand-out sequences include any of the major Capital crowd scenes, the more subtly surround-enhanced training sequences, and, of course, the whole of the games themselves. Within the arena, everything takes on a heavier bass influence (the cannons that signify a participant’s death throb hugely around the rear channels), the environmental ambience becomes lively, and the sounds of even the simplest actions are amped up for more aggressive impact. The swirling island and the screaming birds are highlights. James Newton Howard (who originally replaced Danny Elfman) reprises his role as composer and does a fine job undercutting the film’s already dark qualities with sinister and mournful (though rarely memorable, outside of his recycled Capital theme) string themes. The more rhythmic action cues benefit greatly from the discrete LFE.

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The

Extras


The extras begin with an audio commentary that features Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson. This is not the most exciting track, nor is it the most dynamic one, but the filmmakers do a decent job of running down the basics. Both participants fill the space pretty well with on-set anecdotes, technical jargon, comparisons between the book and movie, and discussion of the underlying character and story themes, along with less constructive descriptions of the on-screen actions and fluffy cast & crew praising. The track’s low energy is a bit tiring, but there is plenty to learn and not a lot of overlap with the other extras.

Speaking of the other extras, they include:
  • Surviving the Game: Making Catching Fire (2:25:00, HD) – A nine-part, feature-length documentary that includes behind-the-scenes footage, production art, and a myriad of cast and crew interviews. It is broken down into:
    • A New Kind of Hunger: Continuing the Saga – An introduction to the pre-production and the process of adapting the first-person novel into a movie.
    • Visual Vocabulary – A look at the conceptual art, production design, and set construction, all of which was built upon the existing materials of the first film.
    • Stirring Things Up – On casting the film.
    • Fashion Forward – On the costume, make-up, and hair design.
    • Let It Fly – Concerning the Georgia part of production, pre-viz, and Lawrence’s direction.
    • Moves and Countermoves – About the stunt choreography/coordination, training, and weapons.
    • Tick Tock – Concerning the Hawaiian part of the production and shooting in IMAX.
    • Threading the Needle – Including a look at the editing process, sound design, and visual effects.
    • The Revolution of Lives – A wrap-up that also covers the next two movies in the series.
  • A deleted/extended scenes reel (4:40, HD) – These include bits of Katniss visiting District 12, Snow explaining the biology of a mockingjay, Plutarch Heavensbee doing clandestine things, and Finnick teaching Katniss how to tie a knot.
  • A sneak peek of Divergent (6:50, HD)
  • A trailer for Divergent


 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The

Overall


Catching Fire is certainly not a perfect movie, but it is an improvement on the original Hunger Games in just about every way I can fathom (aside from novelty, I suppose). It also sounds like this creative team is firmly established for the next two episodes and I honestly find myself looking forward to them. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray comes fitted with a sharp transfer that shows off the differences between the 35mm and IMAX sequences, a big, brassy DTS-HD MA soundtrack, and a number of informative extras, including a decent commentary, an in-depth documentary, and a number of deleted/extended scenes.

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The

 Hunger Games: Catching Fire, The

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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